Former Wahkiakum basketball star, becomes national champion in rugby

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — If you told Megan Leitz at 14 when she was gearing up for Wahkiakum’s first-round game in the State basketball tournament that her first team championship would come in the sport of rugby she would’ve called you a liar.

Leitz made the uncommon journey from Wahkiakum High School in Cathlamet to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland in the summer of 2022. And after four years of playing basketball for the Mules’ varsity basketball team – all of which saw Wahkiakum advance to the final tournament of the season – Leitz found herself on the pitch in Charlotte, North Carolina for the women’s CRAA National Championship as a starter for the Navy Midshipmen against Utah State.

But before we get into the big game, a game in which Leitz scored three tries as a freshman and helped her team win the fall D1 title, let’s rewind the story to March of 2022 when Leitz toured the Navy campus at Annapolis and fell in love with her new school.

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“It’s in downtown Annapolis, which is nice because West Point you have to drive an hour and a half (to get to a city). You get more direct interaction with civilization (here),” Leitz explained. “The school is right on the water and looks right at the Severen (river). It has a beautiful view.”

And it’s not just that Navy beats Army in terms of social life. There’s also the architecture and historical aspects that helped to convince the old Mule on taking the path to become a Midshipmen.

“You know, it’s been around for a long time… There’s the brick walk of Stribling… the historical aspect is really cool. The campus is so beautiful. Like, I’m not a religious person, but you go into the chapel and it takes your breath away,” Leitz added. “I’m a pretty adventurous person, it’s just an opportunity to go out and see the world… Here I am.”

Like those old campus buildings it was set in stone then. Leitz would attend the Naval Academy where she would enlist as a naval officer, major in a soon-to-be determined subject, and for athletics, she would… play rugby?

A basketball, volleyball and track athlete at Wahkiakum, Leitz stumbled across rugby while visiting the campus in Annapolis. Aware that Navy had a strong women’s rugby program (the team won the national championship in 2021) and having clicked with the coach during a meeting in her application process, Leitz made the decision to pick rugby as her required athletic endeavor while going through her plebe year at the Academy.

“I knew the program was really good,” Leitz noted of her decision to try rugby. “I have cousins in New Zealand who play it and I thought it was interesting. I thought I would give it a try. My backup plan was basketball.”

Rugby is as physical and cardiovascular demanding of a sport as one can find. It’s also played without any personal protection like a helmet, shin guards or thigh pads.

The game requires its athletes to be in peak physical fitness. It can also be played with either 15 players a side or with seven players per side covering the pitch. Navy participates in both styles, with the 15 versus 15 game occurring in the fall and “Rugby Sevens” occurring in the Spring.

The object of rugby is to ground the ball over the opponent’s try line otherwise known as the “in-goal area” which awards a team five points on the scoreboard. A 15-versus-15 game is made up of two 40-minute halves at the collegiate level. The team which accrues the most points, wins.

As Leitz began her indoctrination with the game, she realized only a few of her current athletic skills carried over and that she would need to develop a few others in short order.

Leitz applied the skills she had in the ability to run and to receive a pass without much additional coaching. However, it was evident from the outset she lacked the skill to make an accurate backwards pass (all passes in rugby are backwards and underhand), was unable to kick while on the run and needed a copious amount of work on tackling.

“She came to us with an array of raw skills from her high school and I’m guessing middle school athletic background,” Navy assistant coach Ted Chapman said. “She’s very quick, she has a great first step, she can change direction really, really effectively. So having that makes her lethal on the edge. I mean you don’t score three tries in the national championship game if you aren’t quick. She first started progressing and made progress every single week.”

Navy opened its season with a 44-0 win at home against Lander. But the win came with a cost attached as several key upperclassmen at the wing position ahead of Leitz on the depth chart were lost for the season with injury.

Suddenly, Leitz found herself thrust into action.

“That’s sport. That’s life. That’s how it goes,” admitted Chapman.

Though Leitz had an opportunity in front of her to seize playing time, she had to show herself capable of filling the role. Navy has a roster of 66 women with 19 players that can fit the same wing position that Leitz now fills.

“Pretty early on, Megan showed herself to be very coachable.. Being coachable within the construct of a new sport is huge,” Chapman said. “She and a few of the other players were out there early and were out there late, working on their skills, working on the fringe skills, kicking, catching, passing… and that kind of stuff shows.”

And not only did she receive the instruction. Leitz was off and running when given the chance.

“Megan took her opportunity with both hands and started scoring tries and started making tackles and got better week to week,” Chapman noted. “Her tackling progression continued to get better and her ball-in-hand ability was really, really good.”

By week two in a home game against American International College, Leitz was elevated to a starting position for Navy. The Midshipmen lost 12-5 to AIC. But things soon got better as the new players got accustomed to the game and their new roles. For Leitz, just learning the ground rules of the game took time.

“I was remembering my first game I played in and nobody knew what was going on,” explained Leitz. “When the referee blew his whistle, I was like, ‘What was the call? I don’t know what’s going on.’ The amount of knowledge I have now compared to then is exponential.”

Navy would win back-to-back games against West Chester (20-10) and New Haven (25-5) before losing consecutive games to Central Washington (69-8) and Davenport (44-5). By that point, Leitz was settled in as the starting left back, playing the majority of the second half, rather than being subbed off for fresh legs.

The following week, on Oct. 22 at Virginia Tech, Leitz found herself behind the opponent’s try line with the ball for the first time. She liked it so much, she scored twice in that contest.

“My coach was telling me, ‘If you look up and think you can beat that girl, you will do it,’ explained Leitz. “I ran right past her and I just thought, wow that was kinda easy. It made me realize, I actually can do this.”

Not only was Leitz finding she could succeed in rugby, she was also realizing that she enjoyed the rugged competition immensely. She finds practice a much-needed reprieve from the many rigors of plebe life at the Academy.

“It’s an escape from the regular, monotonous day,” Leitz admitted. “Everyday I like it more.”

She’s also discovered the unique level of sportsmanship and respect that ties its players to the game.

“You’re tackling girls, beating down on them for (80 minutes) and afterwards you have so much respect for them,” Leitz noted. “Rugby is 10 times more aggressive (than basketball) but at the end of the day, both teams have a ton of mutual respect for each other and we can build relationships off of that.”

One of the relationships that Leitz has built the quickest is with fellow freshman, Kyndall Wynaard of Middletown, Delaware. Wynaard plays wing on the opposite side of Leitz and had a front-row seat to Leitz’s improvement from Day 1 through her 80 minutes of action in the national championship game.

“Rugby is definitely a complicated sport especially, when you come in and haven’t played it before,” said Wynaard. “But, Megan loves challenges. She took it and she took off running with it. She was always asking questions of coach (Chapman)… She’s one of the happiest and most inspiring members of the team.. I’ve seen her grow in her skills 100 percent.”

Navy headed to the playoffs with a 4-4 record before truly finding its form. Navy took down Air Force 12-3 in the first round of the CRAA playoffs, then beat Northeastern 52-5 in the semifinal where Leitz added another score to her resume. In the championship tilt, Navy took on a stout and physical Utah State team and dominated them 61-28 by utilizing speed and athleticism.

Leitz had the best game of her season with three tries and a few key tackles. Afterwards, when the final buzzer sounded and Leitz was able to take a deep breath, the team’s accomplishment finally sank in.

She was a champion of her sport.

“Winning the championship was one of the coolest feelings I have ever had. Even though the score wasn’t (close), it felt like it was close the whole game and we really had to fight for it,” Leitz said.

The fight that the girl from Cathlamet brings to everything she does is not lot on anyone who has observed her along the way

“We’re grateful she got here,” Chapman said.